Reappraising Victorian literacy through prison records

Crone, Rosalind (2010). Reappraising Victorian literacy through prison records. Journal of Victorian Culture, 15(1) pp. 3–37.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13555501003607644

Abstract

Since the Registrar General began to count the signatures and marks made by brides and grooms in parish registers across England in 1839, contemporaries and later historians have used this data to describe rates of literacy during the Victorian period. Evidence from the marriage registers only tells us about the literacy of the marrying population at any given point in time. Moreover, by distinguishing between those who could read and write and those who could not, the marriage registers have helped to draw an artificial line between those who were literate and the rest of the population, ignoring the large number of semi-literates who played an important role in a society progressing towards mass literacy. This article uses data collected on the separate skills of literacy and the experience of schooling of those men, women and children who passed through the criminal justice system between c.1840 and c.1870 in an attempt to reconstruct patterns of skills acquisition among the lower classes during the Victorian period. Not only does this evidence further dispel myths about the existence of a so-called 'criminal class' with specific characteristics in Victorian England, but, even more importantly, it shows that the path towards mass literacy was uneven, far less predictable than previously allowed, and often only loosely tied to developments in formal schooling.

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